The Power of The Gift

There is a reason (and often several reasons) why we often feel like we don’t fit into this society of modern mankind, and thus consider ourselves, and are considered by others, to be “not normal.” Much of it stems from a deeply rooted incompatibility on the philosophic underpinnings of modern human economic theory, which has little if anything to do with the truly magical nature of the spiritual beings we all know ourselves to be.

Bear with me as I expound on a little philosophizing here, please.

Most early non-western societies did not work on anything resembling a market economy. The idea that everything began with a barter system is, quite probably, untrue,… but there are very few who are even willing to examine the basis of the origins of this human economy that is now called the “market”. To fully understand where I am coming from, it helps if you start thinking a lot more seriously about what this “market” actually is, where it came from, and what a viable alternative to it might actually be like.

The universal assumption of free market enthusiasts, in the past as now, was that what essentially drives human beings is a desire to maximize their pleasures, comforts and material possessions (their “utility”), and that all significant human interactions can thus be analyzed in market terms. In the beginning, goes the official version, there was barter. People were forced to get what they wanted by directly trading one thing for another. Since this was inconvenient, they eventually invented money as a universal medium of exchange. The invention of further technologies of exchange (credit, banking, stock exchanges) was simply a logical extension.

The problem is, is that there is no reason to believe that a society based on barter has ever actually existed. Instead, what anthropologists studying primitive cultures have discovered is that there were societies where economic life was based on utterly different principles, and most objects moved back and forth as gifts – and almost everything we would call “economic” behavior was based on pure generosity (or a pretense of it) and a staunch **refusal** to calculate exactly who had given what to whom.

Such “gift economies” could on occasion become highly competitive, but when they did, it was in exactly the opposite way from our own modern westernized way; instead of vying to see who could accumulate the most, the winners were the ones who managed to give the most away. In some notorious cases, such as the Kwakiutl of British Columbia (or really, almost any tribe of northwestern native americans), this could lead to dramatic contests of liberality (the potlatch), where ambitious chiefs would try to outdo one another by distributing thousands of silver bracelets, Hudson Bay blankets or Singer sewing machines, and even by destroying wealth – sinking famous heirlooms in the ocean, or setting huge piles of wealth on fire and daring their rivals to do the same. The ancient Celts had similar practices, and indeed, if you are interested in studying this phenomenon, I have little doubt you would find that, rather than it being a rare thing, it was a fairly common practice.

All of this may seem very exotic. But how alien is it, really? Is there not something odd about the very idea of gift-giving, even in our own modern society? Why is it that, when one receives a gift from a friend (a drink, a dinner invitation, a compliment), one feels somehow obliged to reciprocate in kind? Why is it that a recipient of generosity often somehow feels reduced if he or she cannot reciprocate? Are these not examples of universal feelings, which are somehow discounted in modern society – but in others were actually –>the very basis

In gift economies, exchanges do not have the impersonal qualities of the capitalist marketplace; in fact, even when objects of great value change hands, what really matters is the relations between the people; the exchange is about creating friendships, or working out rivalries, or obligations, and only incidentally about moving around valuable goods. As a result, everything becomes personally charged, even property; in gift economies, the most famous objects of wealth – heirloom necklaces, weapons, feather cloaks – always seem to develop personalities of their own.

In a market economy it’s exactly the other way around. Transactions are seen simply as ways of getting one’s hands on useful things; the personal qualities of buyer and seller should ideally be completely irrelevant. As a consequence everything, even people, start being treated as if they were things too. (Consider in this light the expression “goods and services.”)

Ancient Rome still preserved something of the older ideal of aristocratic open-handedness; Roman magnates built public gardens and monuments, and vied to sponsor the most magnificent games. But Roman generosity was also quite obviously meant to wound; one favorite habit was scattering gold and jewels before the masses to watch them tussle in the mud to scoop them up. Early Christians, for obvious reasons, developed their notion of charity in direct reaction to such obnoxious practices. True charity was not based on any desire to establish superiority, or favor, or indeed any egoistic motive whatsoever. To the degree that the giver could be said to have gotten anything out of the deal, it wasn’t a real gift.

But this in turn led to endless problems, since it was very difficult to conceive of a gift that did not benefit the giver in any way. Even an entirely selfless act would win one points with the Christian God. Therein began the habit of searching every single act for the degree to which it could be said to mask some hidden selfishness, and then began the mistake in assuming that this selfishness is what’s really important.

One sees the same move reproduced so consistently in modern social theory. Economists and Christian theologians agree that if one takes pleasure in an act of generosity, it is somehow less generous. They just disagree on the moral implications. To counteract this very perverse logic, it is necessary to emphasize the “pleasure” and “joy” of giving; in traditional societies, there was not assumed to be any contradiction between what we would call self-interest (a phrase that could not even be translated into most human languages) and concern for others; the whole point of the traditional gift is that it furthers both at the same time.

Many humans, however, fail to grasp this very simple concept. This is part of what sets the Elfin/Fae apart from the humans. This is why we feel that we are not normal, because of course, if normal is defined as being of the same economic mindset as humans, then, indeed, we are not normal. On the other hand, since their societal economy is based on something that is not true, and has been perverted through the ages by the logic of economists and theologians,… perhaps it is not us that is not normal… perhaps it is them.